Brooklyn Bridge

Classic Projects: the Brooklyn Bridge

The design and construction of one of New York City's most famous landmarks and the star of countless films and TV shows: the Brooklyn Bridge.

It needed to be long enough to connect New York and Brooklyn, high enough to allow the masts of ships to pass beneath it, and strong enough to withstand the blasts of the Atlantic gales. Crossing the East River, the Neo-Gothic towers of the New York and Brooklyn Bridge, as it was originally called, dwarfed everything on the two cities’ skyline (Brooklyn wasn’t incorporated into Greater NYC until 1898), with only the spire of Trinity Church on Wall Street reaching higher. According to David McCullough, author of ‘The Great Bridge’, there had been talk of spanning the East River for “as long as anyone can remember”. Yet there was a drawback. The stretch of water was the busiest in the world and whatever bridge was to be built had to allow the biggest ships of the day to travel unimpeded.

By 1855, bridge builder and wire-rope company owner John Roebling proposed such a bridge after becoming impatient with the slowness of the Atlantic Avenue to Fulton Street ferry. His proposal for a suspension bridge comprising two granite towers and four mighty cables was to become, in his words, a national monument and work of art.

Local authorities in the two cities met the proposal with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Yet after William C Kingsley, proprietor of the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, came on board, wheels were set in motion with the formation of the New York Bridge Company that included a $3m subscription from Brooklyn’s capital stock and a further $1.5m from New York. The company was permitted to recoup its outlay by charging tolls (initially, a pedestrian was charged one cent), although profits were not allowed to exceed 15 per cent.

By 1869, surveying was under way. However, the project was dealt a setback when Roebling suffered a crushed foot when it got caught between a pier and a ferry. He was later to die of tetanus resulting from the injury, and responsibility for seeing the project through was passed to his son Washington. He was subsequently to become paralysed after suffering from the bends, caused by working in the 3,000-ton pneumatic caissons that had been constructed to clear away silt from the river bed. With unstinting assistance from his wife Emily, he directed operations from his sickbed, and together they oversaw the project through to completion.

The main span of the edifice was, at the time of construction, the largest of any suspension bridge in the world, carrying elevated railroad systems along its centre. To the sides of the tracks were four lanes designed for horse-drawn carriages, cyclists and pedestrians. To support the load (the capacity was 18,700 tonnes) and to protect the superstructure from high winds and vibration, stiffening trusses were designed in, causing delays in construction as Roebling recalculated the load-​bearing capacity of the bridge to allow for the increasing weight of the trains of the day.

Eventually, on 23 May 1883, the bridge was formally dedicated by US President Chester Arthur, and opened with some 14,000 people crossing it that day (providing they paid the toll). Emily Warren Roebling was the first to cross, followed by not only the great and the good of New York, but also livestock.

Trains were discontinued in 1944, and following a period of renovation the landmark became the road bridge that it is today. One of the BBC’s ‘Seven Wonders of the Industrial World’, it is estimated to carry 145,000 vehicles per day, and is still one of the world’s 50 longest suspension bridges.

The Brooklyn Bridge

Date: Opened 24 May 1883

Designer: John Augustus Roebling, succeeded by his son, Washington Roebling

Cost: $15.5m in 1883 (approx $385m or £300m today)

Facts and figures

First ever steel-wire suspension bridge.

It took 600 men 14 years to build the bridge.

In 1972 it was designated a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

Formally named Brooklyn Bridge in 1915.

Vaults in the bridge were used as wine cellars.

One of the BBC’s Seven Wonders of the Industrial World.

Emily Warren Roebling was the first person to cross the bridge.

The bridge is completely destroyed in the movie ‘Godzilla’ (1998).

American playwright Mark Violi wrote the stage play ‘Roebling: the Story of the Brooklyn Bridge’.

A Cold War-era bunker exists under the Manhattan approach.

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